Rants, Teacher

Why Common Sense Education lacks Common Sense

writing30The student make-up of your average classroom has changed so dramatically over the past few decades that it is barely recognizable. So why are reformists suggesting we go “back to basics”? Why not go forward?

In a recent article, Mr. Zwaagstra, a representative for a group called Common Sense Education, says that teachers need to stop treating students like individuals and instead, focus on the subject:

Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time. Students would learn more and teachers would have more time to focus on things that really matter.

Quick question, Mr. Zwaagstra: when was the last time YOU, or any of your Common Sense Educating peers, were in a classroom?  I’m not talking about a homogeneous grade 11 Chemistry class where all of the students have already met the pre-requisites. That’s a challenging job but it’s not the same as teaching in a mixed abilities classroom.

I’m talking about a public school elementary or middle school classroom, where integration is fully in place.

Let me paint you a little picture I like to call “reality”.

It’s September and you have been assigned a class of 30 beautiful grade 4 children. You can tell already that they are nice kids and you want to do your absolute best to help them be the best they can be.

Besides yourself, you have a one teacher’s aid (or EPA) assigned to work one-on-one with a high needs student in your class.

There are thirty (30) students in your room. Six (6) have Individual Plans (meaning they are at least 2 grade levels behind their peers and have specific goals designed to help them improve), four (4) have Behavior Plans (this means they are disruptive to themselves, the teacher and the rest of the class), and five (5) have Adaptations, meaning they can meet the outcomes if they have a special accommodation in place. These adaptations can vary wildly, from making sure the student sits at the front of the room to having someone to write down everything they want to say because they have a writing disability.  (Note: Some children have more than one of these plans in place.)

That makes 15 children who need some sort of individualized support. Half your class.

Now, let’s go deeper. Those six children with Individual Plans? They are all different. They are as different as you and I, which means their plans are different.

One boy, who is big for his age, has severe autism and operates at a 3-year-old level, needing support for toileting and all other personal needs. He shouts out when he gets upset or overwhelmed or just plain excited and has been known to bite. He has EPA support and spends part of his day in the learning centre.

One boy has Asperger syndrome, which means he misses a lot of the social cues that his peers understand. This often results in hurt feelings and social unrest. He also cannot complete his work with one-on-one support. He does not have an EPA.

Two children are multiple grade levels behind in their math and two others can barely read at a grade 1 level. They do not have EPA support either.

Let’s see, what’s next?

Oh right. Behavioural issues.

One of your students lives in foster care, having suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of his parents and grandparents. At any given time, he could be crawling on the floor, barking like a dog, or snuggling in close, asking you to “please, please be my mommy.” The next minute he tells you to f-off and the struggle to remove him from the classroom, once again, begins.  He does not have an EPA.

And remember, he’s only one of four students with his own behaviour plan. And they are all different. Some have ADHD, which may mean they are all over the place or it may mean they are completely introverted. You will figure out which is which pretty quickly.

What about the other 15?

A few of these kids are your very bright and very independent learners. They are usually placed at the back of the room because the front is needed for the kids who need one-on-one support and special cueing. They are usually bored senseless because you have to go over the same lesson 3 times when they have already gotten it the first time.

Finally, you have your so-called average kids who will do their work and make A’s and B’s and fly under the radar all year, unless you purposely make it your mission to focus on them.

That’s your class. I’ll admit…it’s a challenging one but sadly, it’s not unusual.

So, tell me, how do you focus on the subject and not the student when you have such a rich, diverse group of learners? How do you put aside everything you know about the child as a learner and just say, “The heck with it. I’m teaching one lesson, one way and if you don’t get it, too bad.”

How is this common sense?

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7 thoughts on “Why Common Sense Education lacks Common Sense”

  1. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying my articles and my Common Sense Education video series. More videos will be released soon so stay tuned.

    As for your question about when I was last in a classroom, the answer is that I was in one earlier today. That’s because I’m not a “former” high school teacher. In fact, I am a full-time teacher right now in a public school. I currently teach high school social studies to grades 9-12.

    Now I realize that you don’t consider high school a “real” classroom so you might be interested to know that for the first 7 years of my teaching career I taught a grade 5 homeroom (in the same public school). So I’m quite familiar with each and every one issues you listed in your blog since I experienced them myself.

    To be honest, it’s a little surprising you would assume that I am a former teacher. The biography on my website, michaelzwaagstra.com, explicitly states that I am currently a high school teacher in Manitoba. I’m pretty sure you’ve seen the website since that’s where the article you critiqued was posted.

    If you plan to offer a serious critique of the ideas I’m putting forward, you might want to start by making sure you have your facts straight before posting your blog. You might also want to consider that it is entirely possible for someone who has the same type of classroom experience that you have to come to different conclusions about what reforms are needed in public education.

    1. Thank you for responding to my blog. I am glad you are enjoying it.
      I appreciate you clearing up my misunderstanding. I will make a correction on my blog. My apologies.
      I do consider high school a “real” classroom, having taught both high school and university. I just believe it’s easier to teach in a more teacher-directed way in the older grades.
      You didn’t answer my question though.
      How does one teach the “one” lesson to a class of full of students of such mixed abilities? How do you not look at differing learning styles? This has been an on-going issue for me for many years, starting with my years as a resource teacher. I think that even though there is debate around the “learning styles” approach to teaching, I would think that you would agree that some children learn differently from others. (Perhaps not. I shouldn’t assume.) What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.
      Also, on a bigger note, I don’t agree that schools are “failing” our students. I think this is fear-mongering. Why not just talk about how we can make things better?
      I will continue to watch your videos, as I am always open to new ideas.
      Once again, thank you for your response.

      1. Thanks for your quick reply and the correction to your blog. It shows that you are interested in a serious discussion.
        In response to your question, I think it is important to note that in my most recent article I argued hat rejecting learning styles theory does NOT mean a teacher should teach every lesson the exact some way. Sometimes it works best to show pictures, sometimes it is best to explain things verbally, and sometimes it is best to construct a model. In many cases, it is best practice to do all three as part of the same lesson.
        Teachers always do their best to take the needs of their students into account and I am no exception. Nevertheless, it is possible for a teacher to teach an effective whole class lesson and then supplement it with additional supports to individual students while the rest of the class is working on the assignment.
        I look forward to your critiques of my future articles and videos.

      2. Thanks for explaining further. I am still confused, though. Every teacher I know, including myself, teaches the way you are saying.
        So, who exactly is “failing” our students?
        Are you failing your students? Are the other teachers at your school failing their students?
        Or is it just the rest of us?

  2. I really enjoyed this dialog–I’m going to go read the original article. What I like here, is the real willingness to get to the heart of the problem. I have been thinking about, working on, and writing about ed reform as well. I’m 9-12 social studies in an urban regional school.

    I agree–fear is such a major part of reform. I’m trying to focus past this.

    For me, I teach one lesson, but I feel like an improv actor–my crowd responds differently… I always feel that I’m individualizing every class to every student, because it’s like being on a stage. Sometimes students come up with different ideas, different conversations–I have never felt stressed by doing this, even though I have a high student loads…I feel most stressed by the new metrics and being placed in boxes by the high-stakes tests, evals, metrics, and measurements… The individualization, not so bad for me.

    I want us to get back to a system which gives me the permission to serve my students and teach to the highest level I can. I want them to be creative, love learning, and think outside the box… These are the goals.

    Often, what I do for supplement is the stuff I do online–my class WP blog, and I use Learnist for curating a lot of material. We’ve done infographics, individualized projects, and when students come up with better ideas than I had in my plan, I say, “Sure, take the lead on that.” It becomes authentic.

    Thanks to the two of you for engaging in this productive discussion. We really need to have a million more of these. If you’re not too busy, we do a ton of great Twitter chats–#satchat (Sat 7:30AM), #edchatri (Sun 8PM)… Those are two of my favs. Love to talk to you both there…

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. I don’t really understand Twitter yet, but if/when I do figure it out, I’ll be sure to check out your chats. I just purchased Michael’s book and am going through it now. I want to check out Learnist, as well.

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